Friends, we’ve made it to April. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming. And as the last of the bitter winter finally thawed, we had football once again in the form of the Ohio State spring game Saturday.
But let’s be real: What are spring games anyway, if not glorified touch football scrimmages? And yet, they cap a brief season in the football annum which affirms success for the already successful, and failure for those already, preemptively deemed doomed.
So what did we learn from Ohio State’s spring game? Probably that, despite a host of new faces and names at key position groups, the Buckeyes will once again be contenders for the College Football Playoff come the fall. It’s the same thing we learned about Alabama Saturday. It’s the same thing we learned about every stable power in the college football universe.
That being said, just like we get excited when one of the non-powers has a top-five recruiting class, it’s exciting to see a team beat up on itself in its spring game. However, when it comes down to it, hype is just that, and, for most teams in the FBS, talk of a breakout season will die, if not in the spring, shortly into conference play in a few months.
Why? Because there is no parity in college football. The teams at the desirable end of the bell curve will remain markedly consistent from year to year. So consistent, that we could rattle them off alphabetically in a breath here: Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma.
We’ve been over how these teams have managed to stay on top of the world numerous times: consistency at coaching, great recruiting, conference and national titles, and players going on to have success in the NFL. But while it’s great to be a fan of one of these teams (and great for networks when Ohio State, at least, makes the Playoff), is the lack of parity actually good for the sport of college football? The best teams will remain elite. Everyone else will just shuffle for position to maybe make one of the remaining New Year’s Six bowl spots every decade or so.
The aforementioned characteristics build positive reinforcement into a system which further elevates those at the top and increases the gap between the rest of the college football world (in the bell curve, pushing the curve to the left while increasing the tail to the right). In practice, that meant that in the 2021 recruiting class, 20 of 34 five-star recruits signed with the five schools listed above. One remains undecided. Beyond that, two committed to Miami and two to LSU. The remaining nine recruits went to nine different programs.
Looking more broadly at the greater sports landscape, it’s so easy to make the comparison to basketball, with the NCAA Tournament just behind us. In the 80+ year history of the men’s tournament, there have been seven back-to-back champions (women’s basketball, as we know, has traditionally looked more like football in its lack of parity, but is now starting to open up).
Sure, there are teams like Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina that one could reasonably expect to be decent year in and year out for the same reasons Ohio State and Alabama are (great recruiting, players in the NBA, Final Four tradition), but it’s not a given that one of the “elite” teams will win in basketball year in and year out the way it is in football.
One of the unfortunate consequences of today’s football landscape is that, when a non-elite team has success in a given year, the knee jerk reaction is that it’s a fluke. When UCF went undefeated, they didn’t make the Playoff. When any team not called Notre Dame who isn’t in the Power Five goes undefeated, they get the consolation prize of a New Year’s Six bowl (maybe).
Heck, even Power Five teams that aren’t “supposed’ to be good don’t get any credence. Northwestern entered the Big Ten Championship game with one loss, but the narrative never considered what would happen to the Wildcats if Pat Fitzgerald’s team beat the Buckeyes. Instead, the conversation was completely centric on how far Ohio State might fall if they lost to the Big Ten’s doormat of old. And the snub didn’t end there - Northwestern got shut out of a New Year’s Six bowl themselves.
The championship system itself plays a role in establishing parity. When a committee of 13 is left to make a decision of which teams should make a four-team playoff (with five major conferences and several at larges in play every year), human reason, and therefore, error, comes into play far more than, say, the NCAA Tournament selection.
The 68-team field for the men and 64-team field for the women are comprised of every conference champion plus numerous at-large bids. Additionally, while football has fewer games every year and a shorter start-to-finish season, basketball has some built in robustness to it. There are simply more data points in basketball to map trends, because teams play more games. There is less of this “everything is on the line week in and week out” mentality, because a team that really is the best team won’t get left out of the basketball tourney because of a slip up. More out of conference games mean better understanding of how conferences stack up, and which conferences should get more bids (*slowly backs into the bushes while thinking about the Big Ten this year*).
When it comes to the team itself, obviously, basketball has fewer players, so it’s easier to build a team in a given year, but more challenging to build a dynasty over time. It makes sense that parity is easier to achieve when these factors are at play.
But achieving parity is possible outside of basketball and (gasp) even in football. Compared to the college game, the NFL has more parity (even when considering the Patriots’ and other dynasties over the history of the league). Credit for that undoubtedly goes to the current NFL playoff format which, like the NCAA Tournament, brings in all division champs. We can see the impact of this postseason in the fact that, while champions vary year in and year out, the teams at the bottom of the NFL remain relatively consistent (hello, New York Jets). Cheers to the Cleveland Browns for finally breaking out!
Back in the context of the college game, there have been arguments for expanding the College Football Playoff since the system came to fruition in the 2014 season. While we’re all but guaranteed an outstanding on-field product with the top teams in contention, we’re also all but guaranteed those top teams will remain the same year in and year out for the foreseeable future. And that does mean that the CFP will never have the same magic that we see in the NCAA Tournament every March.
In the current system, we will never have a Cinderella in college football. And that is sad.